On Larry Kramer, and Doing History

I think of myself as a pragmatist when it comes to most kinds of action and activism, more conservative than I think many people perceive me to be. And yet there is much, all the same, that I find resonates in Larry Kramer’s point of view:

Temperamentally unsuited to ceding the pulpit, he has never accepted the national gay organizations as competent advocates for gay people, and, in the wake of New York’s failure to pass a same-sex-marriage law, can only repeat his contention that state-by-state incrementalism on such matters is “a waste of time.” If it depresses him, that’s because it’s personal: “I can’t afford to wait for gay marriage in ten years!” he moans. “Unless something radically changes, I won’t be able to leave my estate in any sensible way to David, and everything we built up together suddenly won’t be there to support him. That’s criminal.”

I have been learning a lot more about ACT-UP recently, forcing myself to confront my trepidation and depression at delving into the history of the beginnings of the AIDS crisis. I more and more feel as if it is my duty to learn this history, and be able to relate it—perhaps even more so than it is my duty to learn and teach to the next generation the history of queer identities, cultures, and communities more generally speaking. As I do so, I find myself understanding why and how pragmatism is not always equal to caution. I find myself crediting radicalization with not only feeling good, but actually getting shit done—though I also find myself realizing that, as with all historical narratives, things are more complicated than it is possible to explain in any space less than that between the covers of a book, if then.

If you read that New York magazine profile I linked to above, you’ll see that Kramer is at work on a 4,000-page gay history, not just of the times since people have begun to call themselves homosexual, but of the times before that as well. For once, I do feel informed enough to say that I’m skeptical of that approach. It’s one that appears to reside in double entendres and guesswork, in superimposing the attitudes of the 20th century on earlier eras, and it’s not (I find myself presumptuously thinking) the right way to be sweepingly radical. Yes, the history of American queerfolk is still in the process of being told. Yes, we could use a definitive textbook of American queer history. But the subdiscipline is still in the process of defining itself, and the “everyone is gay” approach has nothing more to recommend itself than the “no one is gay” approach. Maybe it could be a clever commentary on historiography’s heterosexism—but maybe it’s really just bad history. In this profile, Kramer’s conviction that Abraham Lincoln was gay reads like a conspiracy theory, and an allegation difficult to make with respect to a man who died before the coinage of the word “homosexual.”

I of course do not mean to deride Kramer’s contribution to anything, and in fact I have kind of a knee-jerk reaction to the people who do. ACT-UP is evidence that we need radicalism alongside moderation to get things done, that the two work together, that factionalization can (as Amin Ghaziani says) sometimes be productive. The fact that Kramer was, apparently, left out of the recent Harvard exhibition about ACT-UP is, to the best of my knowledge, ahistorical and unfair.

But I read these stories, and I take from them lessons on how to do my own history. When you tell a history, you should not be creating it out of whole cloth—but then how to tell it without creating it, without imposing a 21st-century lens upon a cultural context you may only after years of research begin to understand as natively as you do your own?

Larry Kramer, I have the utmost respect for you, but you have given all us proto-historians (or, well, this one, anyway) an object lesson in “pitfalls to avoid when doing gay history.”

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